Apocalyptic rebel movement revisits Congo’s heart of darkness

In the forests and jungles near Brazzaville, a bitter guerrilla war is led by a messianic pastor who claims that the end of the world is coming. Rory Carroll is the first western journalist to meet him in his remote Kindamba hide-out

Across a savannah ruled by no one, three brothers shouldered a bamboo pole. Their nephew had a broken leg but there were no longer any doctors here – nor vehicles, nor roads, nor telephones, nor electricity.

They strapped Bolnevi Ngonstala, 13, into a chair, tied it to the pole and tramped south where there was rumour of a clinic. Bolnevi’s misfortune was not just to fall from a tree, but to do so in this corner of Africa.

For much of the journey his moans and the creaking bamboo were the only sounds to break the stillness. Villages were deserted, houses ruined, fields untilled. They passed petrol pumps with nozzles of rust, the concrete bases sprouting weeds.

This is the Pool region of the Republic of Congo. Ninja country. A rebel movement has for years battled the government in a guerrilla war with atrocities committed on both sides.

The Ninjas wear purple as a sign of suffering. Their hair is dreadlocked because of a Bible passage which says no razor should touch the head of the chosen ones. They say an apocalypse is coming and, after so much destruction, many suspect it has already started. Ten years of fighting have made Pool desolate.

Thousands have fled their homes to hide in the forests, hungry, sick and frightened of the men with guns and blades.

‘It is one of Africa’s totally forgotten conflicts. Hardly reported yet it’s a major humanitarian catastrophe. The society is just melting back into the bush,’ said Paul Foreman, a head of mission for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the capital Brazzaville.

The world hardly noticed, partly because the conflict was overshadowed by the mayhem in a bigger neighbour with a similar name, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and partly because no key Western interests were involved.

Fighting between government and rebel forces raged longest and fiercest in Pool, Brazzaville’s rural hinterland, spilling into the city itself, levelling entire neighbourhoods and shattering the skyline.

It was bush towns like Kindamba that suffered most. Helicopter gunships blasted buildings while soldiers and rebels on the ground used brutal guerrilla tactics against civilians caught in the middle.

To punish a population seen as Ninja sympathisers, the government last year effectively sealed off the entire region and barred all aid, turning Pool into a blank space on the humanitarian map.

Since a fragile peace accord in March some aid agencies have returned. They have found ghost towns and rebels-turned-bandits roaming a lawless countryside.

A decade ago this former French colony was one of the most developed, sophisticated parts of Africa. As a Soviet client state it boasted an educated population with good roads, clinics and jobs.

Then the Berlin Wall fell and the roubles stopped flowing. A botched move to a market economy and corrupt spending of offshore oil revenue were followed by a succession of civil wars in which rebel and government forces raped and butchered civilians.

‘The tragedy is that as the rest of Africa is slowly pulling itself up Congo keeps deteriorating,’ said Foreman.

Flying north from Brazzaville The Observer landed at Kindamba in a four-seater plane – the first Western journalists in years to do so. Anything heavier risked sinking in the grassy airstrip.

From his base the Ninja leader, Pastor Ntoumi, spotted the plane and asked to meet the passengers. Reputed to be able to turn sticks into rifles and cure the sick, his next move could make or break the truce.

A once-busy market town of 20,000, Kindamba’s population was now around 3,000. House after house, shop after shop were scorched shells. Carcasses of tractors and cars rusted beneath foliage, shrubs linked across tracks. Parents told disbelieving children about electricity and running water.

The hospital – a long, single-storey building with punctured walls and little furniture – is a vast improvement on the squalid ruin the MSF team found two months earlier. Even the door handles had been looted. Now there were shutters on windows, insecticide-treated mosquito nets, guards. And one doctor, Steve Harris, to treat up to 150 patients a day.

There was neither equipment nor drugs, but Dr Harris can treat malaria and malnutrition – and broken legs. It was here Bolnevi’s exhausted uncles lowered their bamboo stretcher after a 62km trek. ‘He fell from a tree while collecting mangos,’ said Fabien Nganoziom, slumped on a bench.

At his surgery in Britain Harris would x-ray the femur, insert pins and apply a cast. In Kindamba he improvised a splint from palm branches and asked a carpenter to make another, around which tarpaulin would be wrapped.

There are no statistics about how many have died but Harris suspected a grim toll. In people who hide in forests without shel ter or medicine, eating berries and nuts for months or years, malnutrition enfeebles the immune system and treatable diseases become killers. One elderly woman and her daughter could barely walk because hundreds of flies were living in their feet from eggs hatched beneath the skin.

The guns have been silent for months but after previous broken ceasefires people are wary of returning, especially since the Ninjas are known to be frustrated with the current peace accord, said Norbert Nkeoua, the closest thing Kindamba had to a mayor.

‘Many people are still living in the forest. They don’t have confidence in the peace. They are afraid because the rebels still have guns and Pastor Ntoumi is still free.’ Nkeoua cannot rebuild his own house, a concrete wreck draped in weeds, for want of money and material.

It is the same for the churches. A rocket had peeled the Protestants’ roof like a tin-opener and the walls were peppered with bullet holes so Jean Bruno Babuoukana’s congregation sang Christmas carols in what used to be his home. Babuoukana is not a cleric but filling in until a real one shows up.

Jonas Mayembo celebrated Mass for the Catholics but he too was a layman standing in for priests absent since 1998. His smock had pictures of Jesus but the crucifixes and Bibles vanished long ago. ‘The people need spiritual succour. I do my best,’ he shrugged.

Before MSF arrived the hospital had been staffed by nurses who were not nurses and doctors who were not doctors. Only the patients were real. Many rebels, too, were fake. They have Ninja dreadlocks and a fetish for purple, but no belief in Pastor Ntoumi. ‘You’d characterise them as thieving bastards basically,’ said one analyst.

Aid workers have been robbed. ‘There are no jobs for young men and it’s just too easy to join a militia group or bandits, get a Kalashnikov, stop a car and ask for 3,000 francs,’ said Maarten Merkelbach, of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Brazzaville.

Critics accuse the government of undermining the March peace accord by making no effort to restore basic services to Pool and failing to integrate the rebels into the army. The reason, they say, is that President Denis Sassou Nguesso, a northerner, has not forgiven the insurgents and he has no desire to help southerners.

Kindamba’s garrison commander, Lieutenant Fernand Longa, insisted that the war was over and security was returning. ‘We even play football with the Ninjas,’ he said. He did not mention the last match, where a beer bottle was broken over somebody’s head and both teams produced assault rifles.

The uneasy truce was visible at a sun-baked, open air disco. Powered by a car battery, the speakers wedged in trees, a stereo blasted traditional music while the DJ played a harmonica into a megaphone. Off-duty soldiers lounged on one side, sipping palm wine. Ninjas lounged on the other, and between them civilians danced.

‘The government’s promises have not been kept. If the pastor gives the order, we’re ready to play again,’ said Fidele Bikoumou, 35, wearing a purple turban and curling a trigger finger.

Alexander Mouzita, a tall, lean 42-year-old in a purple robe and baseball cap, reiterated that Pastor Ntoumi wanted an interview. Mouzita said that the Ninjas were invulnerable. ‘The pastor was sent by God. He protected us. The helicopters attacked and nobody died. Is that not bizarre?’

The dreadlocked fighters at the first checkpoint on the dirt path leading to Ntoumi’s headquarters at Loukouo clambered into the car to toy with the cameras, rifle through bags and ask for presents. The second checkpoint guard lifted the bamboo barrier without a word. The compound was a collection of corrugated tin huts and concrete houses neatly arranged around trees and five Land Cruisers. Purple sheets hung from doorways, there were lines of washing, a smell of cooking and the sound of children counting in French: ‘ Dix-huit, dix-neuf, vingt .’

We were seated on white plastic chairs facing an empty chair. Behind it an AK-47 hung from a tree. Flanked by three aides, one carrying a satellite phone, Ntoumi emerged from a hut to offer a handshake and a smile. He wore white slip-on shoes, brown jeans, a blue T-shirt and a yellow sports jacket. No purple. No crucifixes or jewellery visible.

He had been expecting us earlier, it turned out, and apparently had slipped back into casual gear when he thought we were not coming. His voice was soft, his French grammatical. He had no plans to break the truce, he said, but added an ominous caveat: ‘Although what happens next is in the hands of God.’

As a Pentecostal preacher in Brazzaville in the mid-1990s Ntoumi had had no desire to enter politics, until ordered to help the displaced of Pool. ‘The Holy Spirit told me to to collect the people and form the Ninjas.’

His goatee was flecked with grey but he looked younger than his 39 years. He remained mild compared to his aides, who scowled when questions turned personal. His first wife had not been a good wife, he said, and he shared the compound with a second wife and two children. He loved music – jazz – but had not heard of Duke Ellington. ‘Afterwards I’ll sing a song if you like.’

He handed over photocopied reports purportedly from the president’s office outlining genocidal designs in Pool. They appear crude forgeries. When asked how he obtained them, Ntoumi smiled.

The only tense moment was when he was asked whether his movement was vegetarian. The messianic leader dropped his gaze, shifted in his seat and lifted a shoe with a toe. He used to eat meat before the war. ‘But not any more.’

Dusk was approaching – bandit time – and the interview ended. Ntoumi disappeared behind a purple sheet into a house. There was no time for the song.

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